Lusail: sleek new city offers glimpse of Qatar’s post-oil future

From the sands of the Qatari coast rise the towering glass, steel and concrete forms of Lusail, a city being built almost entirely from scratch. Pharaonic in its scale and ambition, the under-construction metropolis is the vision of the country’s former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, born in part from the desire to diversify the Qatari economy and distance it from oil dependence. Financed by the government via the Qatari Diar real estate company, the city was initially conceived in 2005 but development truly took off when Qatar was announced as the host of the 2022 World Cup. It is also a showpiece in the government’s Vision 2030 sustainable development plan, with a range of features from water-sensitive landscaping plans to a district cooling system designed to save 65m tons of CO2 a year. Although an independent urban centre, Lusail is also an extension of Qatar’s capital, Doha. The two cities are 15km apart and will be connected by subways and state-of-the-art train lines. Developers are hoping people will attracted by the city’s marina, one of the biggest in the Gulf, as well as its shopping malls, business districts, golf courses, artificial islands and amusement park. The city is one of a number of developments designed to anticipate the need to house a dramatically growing population. Between 2004 and 2010, Qatar’s population increased by 128%, largely due to the drive to attract foreign workers. Qataris remain in the minority: of the country’s 2.6 million inhabitants, they number approximately 313,000. The exponential population growth is largely due to workers from developing countries such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, working mainly as manual labour for the country’s building projects, including the infrastructure needed for the World Cup. But given the well-documented poor working conditions and effective segregation of these workers from the Qatari population, it seems evident that the manicured environs of Lusail are not aimed at them. Instead, the city seems designed to tempt more highly skilled workers from developed nations as part of the country’s preparation for the post-oil era. I meet two of Lusail’s first residents: Chaiun Chung, a communications specialist from South Korea, and his friend and neighbour Sophie Nowland, an Australian who moved to Qatar to teach. Chung was drawn to the city because of its newness, its cheapness in comparison with Doha and the surprising new architecture springing up every day – the houses in Chung and Nowland’s neighbourhood, for example, are inspired by Italian architecture. Lusail’s planned transport connections to Doha and lack of traffic are also attractive, and not just to Chung. “Two years ago, there was nobody here,” he says. “In the last year, there are more and more people.” The Qatari government hopes Lusail will position the country as a model for the Middle East in terms of sustainability, human development, economy, tourism and sport. When the city’s 80,000-seat stadium hosts the opening match and final of the 2022 football World Cup, the eyes of the world will be upon it. For now, however, only a small part of the city has been built. Just a few offices and one coffee shop are open, but already people are coming from Doha to wander around the marina at night when the weather is cooler. More will doubtless make their way to explore the new city in a few months when the metro is up and running. As the city grows, landscaping turns more and more desert sand green, and yet more land is reclaimed from the sea to be built upon. As I watch this city of the future being constructed before my eyes, I have the very strong sense that anything is possible. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to join the discussion, catch up on our best stories or sign up for our weekly newsletter

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